It’s surprising there aren’t too many sports novels, especially considering it’s such a compelling theme in film. I always assumed that an entire ecosystem of sporty literary fiction existed somewhere. But Saskya Jain’s new novel Geeta Rahman at Championship Point made me realise that it is a novelty. There are others, but I could only think of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest which is set in an elite tennis academy, and Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day which is set around cricket.
Jain, in an interview a few months ago, pointed out that it is “Badminton, not cricket – which is the true national sport of India, especially looking at it from a female perspective.” She was talking about her book which is perhaps the first badminton novel (I researched and couldn’t find another).
Geeta Rahman at Championship Point is about a 12-year-old badminton prodigy growing up in Kaka Nagar, the posh bureaucrat colony in central Delhi in the 1990s.
Geeta Rahman’s aptitude for badminton is discovered by her new neighbour Vicky, a powerful but corrupt official whose father did not let him become a professional player. Resentful even years after his father’s death, Vicky is determined to make a champion out of Geeta much to the chagrin of her father Akbar.
Akbar, a widower, is acutely aware of the political circumstances — a few months after the demolition of the Babri Masjid — in which he is raising his Hindu-Muslim daughter. Their small mixed-faith family — Akbar, Gita and her nani — are, to the growing tide of communal nationalists, “a threat to everything they believe in.” Akbar tells Geeta, “You represent a certain kind of future that makes them feel small.”
“That’s why I keep telling you that you will have to excel at whatever you do. Be better than everyone else. This may sound obvious but only success triumphs failure. There is no middle ground for someone like you. You especially will never belong to just one side,” he says. He wants Geeta to focus on her studies, relegate badminton to what it was to her before Vicky: a hobby.
But the early 1990s was also when Prakash Padukone was setting up the first badminton academy in India — “This means sports scholarships. It’s finally happening for your generation,” Vicky tells Geeta who knew nothing about badminton or Padukone. “He’s one of the greatest Indian badminton players that lived, though personally, I think Syed Modi, may his poor soul rest in peace, had more style,” he says. While training Geeta, he also introduces her to the history and theory of badminton — that six, maximum seven feathers from the goose’s left wing are used to make a shuttlecock and it takes about a year from pluck to production. That Lady Leela Ginwala, an Anglo-Indian heiress, raised shuttlecock geese on her estate outside of London after World War Two because of the shuttlecock famine England.
And most stirringly, he tells her about his father. The most powerful, poignant part of the novel runs in the backdrop as Vicky grapples with the bittersweet memory of his father, Prakash Bhabra, based on the poignant real-life Prakash Nath, the national champion who made it to the finals of the All England Open Badminton Championship in 1947 — and why he lost.
This is rich material — and Jain uses it carefully, fictionialising only his name really and a few familial details. In London, the two players from India, Nath and Devinder Mohan, made headlines for flipping a coin. They were to play against each other during the quarter-finals, which meant that only one would reach the semis. So instead of tiring each other out in a match, they decided to toss a coin to decide which of them would go on to the semi-finals, his energy conserved for the next game. Nath won the toss and went on to win the semi-finals. But on the morning of the finals, he read the news of riots in Lahore — his neighbourhood had been set on fire during Partition. After losing the finals, he rushed home only to move his family to Delhi where he rebuilt his life — he never played again and died in 2009.
Jain recreates Nath’s story slowly, tenderly revealing the turn of excitement into ash, made all the more complicated by Vicky, the torn fictional son. She also writes badminton well, emotionally connecting with her readers to root for Geeta and Vicky.
This is an achievement — especially since both the characters, most of her characters in fact, are terribly annoying. Geeta sounds like an eight year old and I reckon this would have been a far superior novel without her gimmicky cuteness: “My father’s main vimm is that I should develop an interlicked.” (She means whim and intellect, in case you missed it). Geeta looks everything up in a dictionary and for reasons that remain unclear, Jain chooses to subject her readers to this child’s findings — champion is “someone who never loses anything”.
Vicky is so many things — boisterous Punjabi uncle, bribing official, unhappily married man, determined coach, grieving son and maybe even some kind-of creepy — and yet Jain is able to present him, at best, as a caricature of all of these things. Akbar who is also a poet only really comes alive when he’s being arrogant, but even then, not really. Then there’s a cast of peripheral characters — “one colony can only host so many misfits” — but I only really liked Vicky’s defiant teenaged daughter Sitara who refuses to play badminton and is working on a graphic novel titled The Smashing Confessions of Sitara B, which sounded like something I would like to read.
Jain gives her characters space — but often it is distracting and unless they’re talking about badminton, they have nothing original or interesting to say really and resort to truisms such as “That’s what religion is. A compelling story,” which make this a less compelling novel. It feels more Young Adult than anything else. And yet I would happily and confidently recommend it to anyone who is remotely interested in badminton — I just wish there was more of it.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.
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